News-Miner opinion: Identical bills were introduced in the state Senate and House earlier this month to regulate the use of a family of chemicals generally referred to as PFAS and which have contaminated numerous sites around Alaska.
The bills — Senate Bill 176 and House Bill 240 — also would require the state Department of Environmental Conservation to periodically test for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances in all drinking water that comes from a water supply located in an area in which the chemicals have been released.
It’s good to see the PFAS issue getting some attention in the Legislature. The Department of Environmental Conservation has a list of 94 active PFAS contamination sites in the state. Several of are in Interior Alaska: Clear Air Force Station, four sites; Alyeska Pump Station 5 at Coldfoot, one site; Eielson Air Force Base, 29 sites; city of Fairbanks, five sites; Fort Greely, three sites; Fort Wainwright, one site; Galena, two sites; Alyeska Pump Station 7 on the Elliott Highway, one site; North Pole refinery, one site; Alyeska Nordale Storage Yard, one site; Alyeska Pump Station 10 at Paxson, one site.
Even Congress is getting involved, with numerous pieces of legislation having been introduced by both Republicans and Democrats.
It’s important that national and state lawmakers discuss the health impact of the PFAS water contamination, which is mostly caused by the use of fire suppression foams containing the chemicals. Before banning the use of PFAS-containing foams, however, lawmakers need to discuss whether a suitable firefighting alternative exists.
The two bills in the Alaska Legislature, while praiseworthy for elevating the discussion, also leave several questions unanswered.
For example, in requiring testing by the Department of Environmental Conservation, the bills state that the department must “periodically test.” “Periodically” isn’t defined. Is that once a year? Is it less? More?
The bills also state the testing should be performed on drinking water when the PFAS chemicals have been released “in the area of the water supply.” There’s no definition of “in the area of,” however. Is it 1 mile? Half a mile?
And when the testing does reveal drinking water containing levels of PFAS above that specified in the bills, the state is to be responsible for providing all affected residents with water that is compliant with the standard. And the state is to do this at no cost to the residents. But for how long? And what about alternatives?
The bills also exempt the oil and gas industry from use of firefighting foams that contain PFAS. That exemption needs to be explained during committee hearings.
The bills contain other elements, such as allowing for voluntary blood tests of first responders and other residents exposed to PFAS chemicals.
The two bills deserve high attention from lawmakers and from the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, but it’s clear that more work needs to be done on them. Let’s hope it’s done in a bipartisan and expeditious manner.